Stepping off the bus onto the main street of La Boca was like getting punched in the face by a storm of colours. The shouts of children playing soccer in an abandoned field to my right intermingled with the soft clapping and tapping of the tango dancers to my left. The two movements were side-stepping each other in a complicated embrace of the modern and the traditional, the low-brow and the exquisite, the market and the palace.
At that moment, I fell in love with Buenos Aires. Hard. And so began this Jewish travel guide to Argentina.
Our day in Buenos Aires began at 12pm at our hotel in Palermo Soho, the BA Sohotel. We were told that young professionals usually end up in nicer hotels on their trips, but after spending most of my travel in Airbnb apartments, I was honestly unprepared for the classy, understated modernism of our suite at the BA Sohotel. In a large white room outfitted with wooden furniture in light, neutral hues, the only splashes of colour come from the traditional woven blankets and the red tile in the bathroom – and the result couldn’t be more striking. I was genuinely impressed.
From the suite to the first cup of coffee at the hotel cafe, I could see I was going to like Buenos Aires. But it wasn’t until we got off the bus at the Recoleta Cemetery that I realized just how right for me this city was.
When our tour guide told us that our first stop in the city was going to be a cemetery, I have to admit I was a bit surprised. As a Jew, I find the concept of ostentatious burials and extravagant monuments bizarre at best, and undignified at worst.
Jewish funerals are usually simple but achingly beautiful, full of heartfelt keening and the raw physicality of each person lending their hand to personally “bury the dead” by throwing a stone on the dead loved one’s body, a body that is naked except the holy talit in which it is are wrapped. Suffice to say, the concept of a beautiful cemetery seemed anachronistic to me.
All that changed when I stepped onto the cobblestoned path of Recoleta. Surrounded by phantasmagorical structures that look like a cross between an Edgar Ellen Poe nightmare and a modernist reverie, I walked straight into a memorial procession for one of the country’s heroes, the wife of Argentina’s founder (whose name, sadly, eludes me now). As I gazed around me at mausoleums so elaborate that they cost more to upkeep than my annual wage, listening to the ear-splitting sound of the trumpet, I started to gain a deeper appreciation for the Christian honouring of life after death.
Not saying I want a mausoleum as my burial ground… But perhaps I could do with a plaque.
From Recoleta cemetery, we continued on our way to the neighbourhood of La Boca, whose raw beauty I already described in the first paragraph. There are honestly few words that can transmit the onslaught of colourful houses done-out in corroded metal, painted wood, and intricately ornate signs. The smells of the river and sewage, intermingled with the sizzle of Asado from nearby restaurants. The sounds of street hawkers and paddlers, advertising their wares to all those who would listen. While our tour guides were busy warning us not to go to La Boca at night, all I could was dream about living in an area so alive, so vibrant, so full of contradictions.
And then I realized I live in Montreal, and my heart rejoiced.
But wait, I have yet to tell you about food! So far, I have experienced only one meal in Argentina – a dairy-style lunch at T-Bone restaurant. Some of you may wonder, why start my visit in Argentina, the land of steak and red wine, with a dairy meal? But Argentina is actually renowned also for the quality of its Italian food. But as this meal demonstrated, a steakhouse may not be the best place to try it.
From the starter, a plateful of potato wedges topped with parsley and garlic and served with Romesco sauce, I knew the theme of the meal would be richness. And, true to form, everything came loaded with creamy, cheesy sauces, including the delicate mushroom-stuffed ravioli that could have done with a lighter hand. Sadly, I have to admit that in both those dishes, the cheese was the worst part, a distraction from the main focus of the dish and from the clean, fresh ingredients we were eating. But the overall impression was of good food, albeit on the heavy side.
Then came the dessert: simple ice cream with fresh blueberries, and I forgave T-Bone all of its cheesy transgressions. The clean notes of this understated dish hit me right at home, and it reminded me more than anything of the vanilla ice cream of my Russian childhood, plombir. I licked my bowl clean, lactose-intolerance be damned (and suffered the resulting stomach ache all afternoon).
At the end of the day, it wasn’t the clean streets of Palermo Soho, where we are staying, that made me love Buenos Aires. It wasn’t the taste of T-Bone’s delicate ravioli, stuffed with mushrooms and greens and smothered with unnecessary cream. It wasn’t the sounds of the tango on the streets of La Boca.
It was the life that I saw pouring out of everyone I met – the stoic Europeans on the streets, the dirty ruffians running around La Boca, the metalsmith whose jewelry I bought on a dusty alley in the Recoleta neighbourhood.
It was the spirit of Buenos Aires, and I just couldn’t wait to taste more of it.
I am in Argentina as part of the first-ever JDC Entwine mission for Russian-speaking Jewish young professionals. My trip, and this entire JDC program for Russian-Speaking Jews (RSJs) is made possible by the generosity of the Genesis Philanthropy Group.
All opinions expressed here are my own.